How many times should I forgive? As much as we have been forgiven…
During the LA riots over the Rodney King verdict in 1992, truck driver Reginald Denny unknowingly swung his 18-wheeler into the middle of the crowd, where he was dragged from his truck and viciously beaten within an inch of his life. The attack ended when one of the assailants took a concrete cinder block and smashed it into Denny’s head, causing 91 fractures of the skull. Some witnesses to the attack managed to get Denny back into his truck and took him to the hospital.
After a painful recovery, which has never been a full recovery, and after the trial of his assailants, Reginald Denny met face to face with one of the men who had beaten him, shook his hand, and forgave him. A reporter, commenting on the scene, wrote, “It is said that Mr. Denny is suffering from brain damage.”
On October 2, 2006, a troubled milk truck driver named Charlie Roberts walked into an Amish schoolhouse and shot ten little girls, killing five of them, before turning the gun on himself. The world stood amazed when the Amish community then surrounded Roberts’ wife and children and extended forgiveness to him, even attending his funeral. The world looked at this and said something like, “Well, they’re Amish. They are a little strange anyway.”
Brain damage, strangeness—that’s how the world viewed these events because forgiveness—especially in cases like this—isn’t rational, according to the way our world works. We expect something else—retribution, revenge, or at least a lawsuit to settle accounts with those who have wronged us. Someone who forgives such a wrong has to be brain damaged or naturally weird.
When most people think about forgiveness, it looks more like the story about the grandfather of writer James Thurber. When he was on his deathbed, Thurber’s grandfather was asked by his minister, “Have you forgiven all your enemies?” “Haven’t got any,” said the old man. “Remarkable!” the minister said. “But how did a red-blooded, two-fisted old battler like you go through life without making any enemies?” Grandpa Thurber explained casually: “I shot ’em.”
We don’t make a lot of movies about forgiveness. Arnold Schwarzenegger has never said, for example, “I’ll be back…to forgive them.” We don’t immediately think about forgiveness when the neighbors do something heinous, when that guy cuts us off on the highway. We don’t immediately move to forgive those who have wronged us, caused our lives to be turned upside down.
And yet, Jesus tells us to pray: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”